Perhaps you have seen a drive-by birthday party in your neighborhood during this pandemic era of the Keys: a line of cars with hand-painted signs and cheering passengers sticking out from the windows, all “socially distant” from the guest of honor, who is usually in front of their home.
But the drive-by on Saturday, Nov. 14, on Canal Street in Key Largo had some unexpected elements: fire trucks with lights ablaze, an antique military Jeep with a gun on top, a crowd of Monroe County fire and sheriff personnel, decorated veterans, and the Monroe County State Attorney, to boot.
The guest of honor? World War II veteran Charlie LaViolette, who was turning 98 that day.
Wearing face masks, the drive-by participants got out of their vehicles and gathered a safe distance behind Charlie on his lawn, while children blew bubbles and clusters of foil balloons and streamers danced in the breeze. The crowd yelled, “Happy birthday, Charlie!” in unison.
His wife, Charelene, leaned over and asked him how he felt. “Like I’m in heaven,” he whispered.
Charlie had been quarantined inside his home since February.
“His health is pretty good,” Charelene said. “There are days when he’s not doing so good. But most of the time, he’s ok. He’s a great guy. He still has a sense of humor. He tells jokes and sings songs. He can’t remember all the words. He’ll start a song, and he can’t figure out the rest of it. He was singing to one of the nurses the other day.”
But a few days before his birthday, Charelene was worried about her husband.
“I was baking banana nut bread and sat next to him. He was crying. I saw the tears, and I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘All I got is memories now,’ he said,” she recalled sadly. “I had just never seen him cry before. That’s why I was upset about it.”
Charelene reached out to her friend Carol Smith to brainstorm about how to cheer up Charlie for his birthday, discussing how she had seen drive-by parties. Smith had the idea to call the Upper Keys VFW Post 10211 for help.
Marine combat veteran and VFW volunteer Jason Kendall took Smith’s call, and he jumped into action without hesitation.
“A lot of the vets in the area are chipping in to try to make his 98th birthday special, to remember the sacrifice our greatest generation did for all of us,” Kendall said about planning the tribute for Charlie. “Our numbers of World War II vets are depleting. Not that many out there. … I remember as a kid we had World War II vets all over the place.”
With some phone calls, Kendall pulled in the volunteers of the Upper Keys VFW, Upper Keys VFW Auxiliary, and the American Legion Post 333 Key Largo, as well as Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward, to organize assorted special vehicles, decorations, a gift, and Monroe County fire and sheriff personnel to pay tribute to Charlie. The event was no longer just a drive-by birthday party.
Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient John Donnelly overheard Smith’s call to Kendall, and the duo immediately paid a visit to Charlie’s home. “He’s a brother and veteran, and that’s the way we roll,” Donnelly said. “We stand for each other, not just in battle. We help each other acclimate when we come home. Within 20 minutes (after Smith’s phone call), we were over there.”
On that Saturday just before noon, the drive-by participants gathered at the Upper Keys VFW to stage the event before driving over to Charlie’s home. They took photos and discussed paying tribute to Charlie, knowing this birthday party was a historic event.
Joe Mastrangelo, Navy SEAL and owner of the Veteran Sailing nonprofit, said, “Freedom is one generation from being lost. (Charlie) served in the generation that preserved it. We’d be speaking German without it.”
Kenny Edge, an Army veteran, had just seen an announcement about the drive-by on Facebook, then drove over to the VFW minutes later to participate. “I heard about this man. What an honor to be a part of this.”
Charelene said that Charlie, his father, and his four brothers were all in service at the same time, a similar story as the Niland family’s, who helped inspire the “Saving Private Ryan” film.
“Charlie was in the Naval Air Force. He was an electrician,” she said, explaining that his favorite duty was that of manning the machine gun at the back of a dive bomber aircraft. “Whenever they asked for volunteers to dive bomb, he always volunteered. He loved to dive bomb. He wants to do it again.” In the end, he achieved the rank of first-class electrician’s mate.
Maybe his own personal parade wasn’t quite the same as dive bombing, but Charlie certainly looked like he was having a great time as he gazed around in wonder at the children scampering around and the fire personnel gathering in formation behind him. Charelene said that as she was taking him in his wheelchair downstairs to the front lawn, he kept asking, “What’s going on?”
While the revelers slowly made their way back to their vehicles, Charelene looked at all the balloons and banners decorating their yard and smiled, saying that Charlie was very happy. She looked almost in shock. “I never expected all this.”
“This is our mission,” said Marketa Kendall of the VFW Auxiliary. “This is what we do.”